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Decline in new US virus deaths may be temporary reprieve

The number of deaths per day from the coronavirus in the U.S. has fallen in recent weeks to the lowest level since late March, even as states increasingly reopen for business. But scientists are deeply afraid the trend may be about to reverse itself.

“For now, it’s too soon to be reassured that deaths are going down and everything’s OK,” said Dr. Cyrus Shahpar of Resolve to Save Lives, a nonprofit organization that works to prevent epidemics.

Deaths from COVID-19 across the country are down to about 680 a day, compared with around 960 two weeks ago, according to an Associated Press analysis of data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. The analysis looked at a seven-day rolling average of deaths through Wednesday.

A multitude of reasons are believed to be at play, including the advent of effective treatments and improved efforts at hospitals and nursing homes to prevent infections and save lives.

But already there are warning signs.

For one thing, the number of newly confirmed cases per day has risen from about 21,400 two weeks ago to 23,200, the AP analysis found.

And in Florida, Georgia, Texas and Arizona — states that loosened their stay-at-home restrictions early — daily deaths have been quietly rising since early June, said Ali Mokdad, professor of health metrics sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle.

“These are not numbers. These are human beings,” Mokdad said. “We’re going to see a rise in deaths in many places in the United States.”

The outbreak has killed about 118,000 people in the U.S. and nearly a half-million worldwide, according to Johns Hopkins’ count, though the real numbers are believed to be higher. Potential vaccines are in early stages of testing, and it is unlikely any will be ready before early next year.

Experts note that a rise in deaths could take awhile to show up in the U.S. statistics. Stay-at-home orders imposed in March, combined with the use of face masks and other social-distancing measures, have been bringing down the daily death toll since mid-April, and the U.S. as a whole is still seeing the positive effects, even though people are starting to work, shop and eat out again.

Doctors watching for an uptick in deaths will be on the alert for certain signals to emerge in a specific order, Shahpar said.

First, cellphone data will show people moving around more. Next, doctors will report more flu-like illnesses, and the proportion of people testing positive for the virus will rise. Hospitalizations will then go up and, finally, so will deaths.

Several factors are believed to be pushing the curves for deaths and cases in opposite directions.

Rising case numbers can partially be explained by the wider availability of testing. Mild cases, previously undetected because of limits on who could be tested, are now showing up in the numbers.

As for the drop in deaths, “it is probably several things happening at once,” said Dr. Shmuel Shoham, a professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Lessons learned from the “awful early days” are now benefiting the severely sick and people in nursing homes, Shoham said.

It looks that way in Washington state’s King County, where the first nursing home outbreak in the U.S. killed 45 people at the Life Care Center in suburban Seattle. County data shows deaths in similar facilities declining over the past two months. And no single facility in the county has come close to the death toll at Life Care, which was struck unaware.

While it is unclear how much specific treatments may have contributed to the decline in deaths, doctors are trying antivirals such as remdesivir, plasma donated from people who have recovered from the virus and steroids such as dexamethasone, which grabbed attention this week with reports confirming it can save the lives of many of the sickest patients.

While all viruses mutate, scientists say the coronavirus so far is not changing in a way that has made it less deadly.

The decline in deaths this spring might well be tied in part to warmer weather as people spend more time outdoors where circulating air disperses the virus. But that does not bode well for the U.S. come this fall and winter.

Mokdad noted that deaths are on the rise in the Southern Hemisphere, where it’s now winter.

“This virus is going to have a second wave. It’s going to follow the pattern of pneumonia,” he said. “What we’re seeing in the Southern Hemisphere will be happening here.”

Court says young immigrants can stay, rejecting Trump order

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Thursday rejected President Donald Trump’s effort to end legal protections for 650,000 young immigrants, the second stunning election-season rebuke from the court in a week after its ruling that it’s illegal to fire people because they’re gay or transgender.

Immigrants who are part of the 8-year-old Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Program will retain their protection from deportation and their authorization to work in the United States — safe almost certainly at least through the November election, immigration experts said.

The 5-4 outcome, in which Chief Justice John Roberts and the four liberal justices were in the majority, seems certain to elevate the issue in Trump’s campaign, given the anti-immigrant rhetoric of his first presidential run in 2016 and immigration restrictions his administration has imposed since then.

The justices said the administration did not take the proper steps to end DACA, rejecting arguments that the program is illegal and that courts have no role to play in reviewing the decision to end it. The program covers people who have been in the United States since they were children and are in the country illegally. In some cases, they have no memory of any home other than the U.S.

Trump didn’t hold back in his assessment of the court’s work, hitting hard at a political angle.

“These horrible & politically charged decisions coming out of the Supreme Court are shotgun blasts into the face of people that are proud to call themselves Republicans or Conservatives. We need more Justices or we will lose our 2nd Amendment & everything else. Vote Trump 2020!” he wrote on Twitter, apparently including the LGBT ruling as well.

In a second tweet, he wrote, “Do you get the impression that the Supreme Court doesn’t like me?”

Later, he said the decision showed the need for additional conservative justices to join the two he has appointed, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, and pledged to release a new list from which he would choose a nominee if another opening occurs on his watch. Both of his appointees dissented on Thursday, though Gorsuch wrote the LGBT rights ruling.

Democratic presidential contender Joe Biden pledged to send Congress proposed legislation on his first day in office to make DACA protections permanent.

Roberts, with whom Trump has sparred, wrote for the court that the administration did not pursue the end of the program properly.

“We do not decide whether DACA or its rescission are sound policies,” Roberts wrote. “We address only whether the agency complied with the procedural requirement that it provide a reasoned explanation for its action. Here the agency failed to consider the conspicuous issues of whether to retain forbearance and what if anything to do about the hardship to DACA recipients.”

The Department of Homeland Security can try again, he wrote. But any new order to end the program, and the legal challenge it would provoke, would likely take months, if not longer.

“No way that’s going to happen before November,” said Stephen Yale-Loehr, a professor of immigration law practice at Cornell University Law School.

The court’s four conservative justices dissented.

Justice Clarence Thomas, joined by Justices Gorsuch and Samuel Alito, wrote that DACA was illegal from the moment it was created under the Obama administration in 2012. Thomas called the ruling “an effort to avoid a politically controversial but legally correct decision.”

Alito wrote that federal judges had prevented DACA from being ended “during an entire Presidential term. Our constitutional system is not supposed to work that way.”

Justice Kavanaugh wrote in a separate dissent that he was satisfied that the administration acted appropriately.

DACA recipients were elated by the ruling.

“We’ll keep living our lives in the meantime,” said Cesar Espinosa, who leads the Houston immigration advocacy group FIEL. “We’re going to continue to work, continue to advocate.”

Espinosa said he got little sleep overnight in anticipation of a possible decision. In the minutes after the decision was posted, he said his group was “flooded with calls with Dreamers, happy, with that hope that they’re going to at least be in this country for a while longer.”

From the Senate floor, the Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said of the DACA decision, “I cried tears of joy.”

“Wow,” he went on, choking up. “These kids, these families, I feel for them, and I think all of America does.

Republican Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas had a different take, labeling DACA illegal and focusing his wrath on Roberts.

“Yet John Roberts again postures as a Solomon who will save our institutions from political controversy and accountability. If the Chief Justice believes his political judgment is so exquisite, I invite him to resign, travel to Iowa, and get elected,” Cotton said in a statement.

The program grew out of an impasse over a comprehensive immigration bill between Congress and the Obama administration in 2012. President Barack Obama decided to formally protect people from deportation while also allowing them to work legally in the U.S.

But Trump made tough talk on immigration a central part of his campaign and less than eight months after taking office, he announced in September 2017 that he would end DACA.

Immigrants, civil rights groups, universities and Democratic-led states quickly sued, and courts put the administration’s plan on hold.

The Department of Homeland Security has continued to process two-year DACA renewals so that hundreds of thousands of DACA recipients have protections stretching beyond the election and even into 2022. No new applications have been accepted since 2017, and it probably would take a court order to change that, Yale-Loehr said.

The Supreme Court fight over DACA played out in a kind of legal slow motion. The administration first wanted the justices to hear and decide the case by June 2018. The justices said no. The Justice Department returned to the court later in 2018, but the justices did nothing for more than seven months before agreeing a year ago to hear arguments. Those took place in November and more than seven months elapsed before the court’s decision.

Thursday’s ruling was the second time in two years that Roberts and the liberal justices faulted the administration for the way it went about a policy change. Last year, the court forced the administration to back off a citizenship question on the 2020 census.

In 2018, Roberts joined his conservative colleagues to preserve Trump’s travel ban affecting several countries with largely Muslim populations. In that instance, Roberts wrote the administration put the policy — or at least its third version — in place properly.

Nebraska governor: Mask requirement will cost counties money

Associated Press

LINCOLN — Nebraska’s governor told local governments they will not receive any federal money to help fight the effects of the coronavirus pandemic if they require people to wear masks in public buildings.

The mandate from Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts seems at odds with his usual message, often delivered at his regular news conferences to address the COVID-19 outbreak, encouraging people to wear masks to slow the spread of the virus, the Omaha World-Herald reported.

Ricketts stands by that advice, his spokesman Taylor Gage said. Local governments can encourage mask-wearing in courthouses and other county government buildings, he said, but the governor “does not believe that failure to wear a mask should be the basis for denying taxpayers’ services.”

“Counties are not prohibited from requiring masks, but if they want CARES Act money, they have to be fully open, and that means they cannot deny service for not wearing a mask,” Gage said.

The mandate is drawing objections from county officials, who say it runs counter to Nebraska’s long-held bent toward local control and the advice of public health officials.

In Lincoln, officials planned to require all visitors to wear masks when entering the City-County Building, but those rules were dropped when officials learned that doing so would cost Lancaster County any chance at the $100 million that has been allotted to Nebraska counties as part of the federal economic rescue law.

“We’d like to have a little bit more ability to call the shots in our courthouse, but we realize that he has the right to set the rules,” said Deb Schorr, a longtime Lancaster County Board member.

Dakota County Assessor Jeff Curry said the order could have dire consequences in his county, which is home to a Tyson Foods meatpacking plant and has been one of the hardest-hit counties in the nation for the virus.

Curry said he was hoping that a mask requirement could be in place for the courthouse through July 1.

Nebraska continues to pull back on restrictions meant to slow the spread of the virus, even as more cases are recorded. On Wednesday, the state saw nearly 200 news cases of the virus reported, bringing Nebraska’s total to 17,226, according to the state’s online virus tracker. Nebraska has seen a total to 234 deaths related to the COVID-19 virus.

Adams Central principal always wanted to be in education

Searching a folded map of Nebraska, Dave Barrett struggled to find Sandy Creek High School when he first drove that direction 40 years ago.

As a recent college graduate who had grown up in Syracuse, he had never really traveled west of Lincoln until he set up an interview for a teaching position at the school.

“I stopped in Clay Center and asked directions. They said it was a school to the south,” he said with a chuckle. “I thought it was a town.”

But south central Nebraska transformed from unknown territory to a place called home as Barrett, 62, spent the next four decades in education.

He taught history and coached various sports for 19 years at Sandy Creek before becoming a principal at Wood River High School. After six years there, he became the principal at Adams Central High School, where he will retire at the end of June with 15 years under his belt.

“I’ve been really fortunate over the years to be in three fantastic school systems,” he said.

Education has long been a common theme in Barrett’s family.

“I grew up in an education family,” he said. “I never thought of doing anything else.”

Barrett decided to be a teacher at an early age. His mother was a teacher, and his father wanted to be.

Both his parents became teachers after graduating high school. At the time, anyone who graduated high school could become a teacher. His parents took a teacher preparation class during their senior year in high school and became teachers the following year.

After one year, Barrett said, his father changed careers and became an electrical lineman because it paid a lot more.

“He wanted to be a teacher but couldn’t support a family,” Barrett said.

His brother taught for 37 years at Weeping Water and recently retired. His brother’s wife also teaches at the school. Their son is teaching at Sidney.

Barrett’s wife, Teresa, works as a paraeducator in the Adams Central elementary school. Both his children graduated from Adams Central High School. His oldest son, Jordan, is a fifth-grade teacher in Gretna. His youngest, Brady, is an assistant basketball coach at Hastings College.

Barrett’s own career in education began after he graduated from Nebraska Wesleyan University in Lincoln and was hired as a history teacher at Sandy Creek. He also coached various sports including basketball, cross country, tennis and track.

He didn’t think he would be at the school long.

“When I left Nebraska Wesleyan, I thought I would teach a few years and then head back east,” he said. “It turned out that I never wanted to leave this area. I had it pretty good.”

He said students in central Nebraska have great morals and work ethics. He enjoyed the relationships with the kids and the competitiveness of the athletics.

He had a passion for sports and was glad to be able to do it for nearly 20 years.

“It was a hard decision to leave all that,” he said. “It was an opportunity that came about, and I decided to try it to see what it was like to be on the other side of the desk.”

That opportunity was a principal position at Wood River High School.

Barrett was a bit nervous going into administration, but he felt fortunate to receive support from the rest of the staff.

“The teachers at Wood River were just fantastic as far as helping me,” he said. “They worked with me and were patient.”

It was a change to go from being a teacher to becoming an administrator, and Barrett missed the direct contact with students.

“I was a little bit more removed from a personal level with students, but I was able to see the school from a big picture,” he said.

While coaching various sports and teaching at Sandy Creek, Barrett didn’t have much time to appreciate the other programs offered by the school. Classes during the day and practices or games at night kept his schedule full, aside from raising a family of his own.

As principal, Barrett was able to attend musicals, speech competitions and other activities.

“I was able to see a lot more of the school, students and what they were involved in,” he said.

Six years later, the principal position at Adams Central High School opened up and Barrett applied for the job in hopes of returning to Hastings, where he had lived while teaching at Sandy Creek.

“We had wanted to get back to Hastings,” Barrett said. “At that time, my own children were entering junior high and high school. It provided an opportunity for my kids to be involved with more things.”

Adams Central was a larger school district with a history of excellence.

“The thing that has impressed me with Adams Central is the quality of the programs we’ve had here across the board,” he said. “At Adams Central, every program produces just fantastic things.”

Barrett wanted to maintain that, concerned it could be difficult for new students.

“They don’t realize how hard it is to be that competitive,” he said. “You’ve got to really work at it. It can go in a hurry if you become complacent.”

He has been impressed by the commitment that both teachers and students at Adams Central have to excelling in anything they do.

Following 15 years as principal, Barrett said, he decided it was time to retire when his contract expires at the end of June.

“It seems about the right time,” he said. “It’s time for somebody else to step in here and move the school on.”

Barrett doesn’t have any plans for retirement, and he finds comfort in that.

As an administrator, his job has been about constantly making plans for years down the road. When he retires, he won’t have to do that anymore.

But he will miss the students and staff at the school.

“The thing I will miss most is walking in those school doors each day and being amazed at what our teachers and students do each day,” he said. “It literally takes my breath away at what our students can accomplish.”